‘Diablo 4’ preview: a hell of a good time

An unexpected delight, 'Diablo 4' is light on new ideas but a much-needed refinement of dungeon crawl design

After just a few hours, Diablo 4 became one of my most anticipated games of 2023. After a few false starts, this feels like the return of the action roleplaying game (ARPG) in a big way, a big fun adventure that will win over not just Diablo fans, but draw in a bunch of new players, too.

The general vibe is closer to Diablo 2 than Diablo 3: things are dark, grim and the world feels a little brutal, especially as you start on a frozen peak, fighting for survival against the many many enemies the game throws your way. Slowly, you’ll turn the tide and become more powerful, and that’s the Diablo fantasy.

It’s fitting that Diablo should come to rework the action RPG genre, as it is the rather venerable grandfather of them all. The success of Diablo and Diablo 2 surely led to the gold rush of the genre that saw titles like Titan Quest, Torchlight and Path of Exile all become successful games in their own right.

Diablo 4. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment.
Diablo 4. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment.

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For those unfamiliar with action games, combat is a case of quantity over quality as you slay hundreds of monsters in the quest for epic loot, crawling through dungeons and slaughtering everything in sight in the hope the next item that drops will be an upgrade for you.

This endless process will feel familiar now to players of Destiny 2 or Borderlands, but before them there was Diablo, dropping you onto a treadmill to chase endlessly after better gear. For players that enjoy the gear treadmill, Diablo 4 is going to be a delight – combat feels well-paced and has players taking a more active role than before, making you work a little harder for your trinkets and baubles.

During the trial, I played mostly as the sorcerer, keen to dish out some elemental pain. The skill tree system feels more akin to a mix of Path of Exile and Diablo’s more traditional three-pronged system: there’s a main skill path that unlocks as you spend skill points and at each junction you can go in any direction you want. This means you can spec into any different skill you want, but I found the mechanics – at least for the sorcerer – made it more advantageous to stick with a specific element. The first element I tried was fire, which is low on initial damage but rewards playing with burning enemies, damage over time effects and a giant flamethrower ability. This was good fun, but I really started to embrace Diablo 4 when a quick respec into lightning magic give me the ability to fight a lot of people at once, slinging damage out in every direction with aplomb.

Diablo 4. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment.
Diablo 4. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment.

There was also ice magic, which features the return of Diablo’s classic Frost Nova and will let you freeze enemies, but who cares? After a quick taste, all I wanted to do for the rest of the trial was ride the lightning, watching bolts and sparks zip and zap through crowds of enemies.

Several elements have been chopped away – I haven’t encountered anything that needs an identify scroll just yet, and teleport scrolls have been shelved in favour of players just being able to teleport anywhere, with a return portal being slapped in the middle of town when you go there.

The quest design and the wide open world means walking in any direction will usually involve running into something engaging to do. There’s usually a cellar to clear out, an old monastery to purge of evil, or even just a quest to slay 100 of whatever beastie is lurking nearby. It’s been claimed that Diablo 4 isn’t an MMO, but it sure does wear the skin of one as you bounce from place to place. I don’t mind it, as running into world events or randomly generated dungeons to explore is all part of the fun of the game, and it often involves getting your hands on stacks of loot or a new excuse to blow up a horde of enemies.

Diablo 4. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment.
Diablo 4. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment.

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It’s important to reference the troubled conditions that have led to Diablo 4. The game’s original director, Luis Barriga, stepped down from the project after allegations of misconduct, and both he and game designer Jesse McCree left Blizzard under a cloud following multiple lawsuits.

This, in addition to the departure of interim co-lead Jen Oneal, led to Blizzard pushing the game’s 2022 launch back due to high employee turnover. While Diablo 4 feels great to play, it’s always going to be slightly tainted by the circumstances of its creation.

This, against the background of Activision Blizzard studios unionising, makes it feel a little scuzzy to be excited for Diablo 4. It’s something that makes me feel a little dirty, at least. But, there is a fun game here. Diablo 4 isn’t reinventing the ARPG with bold new ideas, but it is refining several of the core tenets to make this a shining example of what an ARPG should be, and fans left with a sour taste in their mouth over Diablo Immortal have a lot to be cautiously optimistic about.

Diablo 4 launches in 2023 for PlayStation, Xbox and PC

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